Lela's Café

Lela's Café is one of those places I've enjoyed visiting since it opened in June 2000. When I heard recently it had new owners and a new chef, I brought my wife and another couple to see how the restaurant had changed.

Co-owner and manager Christine Saetta comes to Lela's with more than 30 years of restaurant experience in Southern California. Her son-in-law, Waylon Zabriskie, is the chef. A graduate of Western Culinary Institute, the Le Cordon Bleu-accredited culinary school in Portland, Zabriskie worked at the five-star La Costa Resort & Spa in Carlsbad, Calif. Saetta's daughter, Julie Zabriskie, rounds out the team, who purchased Lela's in May.

The place has maintained much of its Parisian-bistro ambiance. The floor is tiled in a large black-and-white checkerboard pattern. The tables are covered in white tablecloths topped with white paper. All of this somehow says Paris to me. So it was no surprise to learn that Lela's cuisine combines classic French- preparation techniques with fresh, locally grown, seasonal ingredients from the Pacific Northwest.

The menu is extensive and varied and there are market-priced seafood specials. One of our companions ordered the salmon special. Her husband ordered the pepper-crusted filet mignon for $29. My wife had the pasta primavera for $19. I had the Tuscan eggplant napoleon for $22. Our companions received wine recommendations from our knowledgeable and affable waiter. Lela's offers regional selections, as well as other domestic and imported wines.

For appetizers, each couple shared a salad for $8 apiece. Our companions opted for the blue cheese salad, my wife and I the Greek spinach salad. They arrived shortly after we had nearly finished the garlic bread. The bread was light on the garlic, so you could actually taste the focaccia-like flavor. We were very tempted to order more, but realized it's one of those things you can't stop eating and we were looking forward to our dinners.

The blue cheese salad was served with organic baby greens, gorgonzola cheese, sliced apples, caramelized walnuts and topped with a balsamic vinaigrette dressing. The walnuts were a big hit. "It was such a nice combination of texture and taste," one of our companions said.

My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed our salad, prepared with organic baby spinach, red onion, kalamata olives, tomatoes and cucumbers with a lemon feta vinaigrette. We love salads and this was one of the best we'd eaten.

The salmon was perfectly cooked and served over a bed of corn with a delightful sauce. The filet mignon, an all-natural and hormone-free tenderloin, arrived dressed with pepper, blue cheese compound butter and served with Yukon gold potato and caramelized onion tart, roasted broccoli, roasted roma tomatoes and finished with a zinfandel demi-glaze. Our companion said of his meal, "Without any reservation I would say this is the best filet mignon I have ever tasted."

My wife enjoyed her pasta primavera. The penne pasta was tossed with champagne cream sauce, baby spinach, grape tomatoes, zucchini, yellow squash and roasted red peppers and topped with parmesan and house-made pesto. It had a delicious flavor that was unlike the way the dish usually tastes.

My eggplant dish, a favorite under the former owners, remained a treat with its distinctive flavor that is not overpoweringly rich. Thick slices of eggplant were layered with baby spinach and goat cheese, polenta and an oven-roasted tomato basil sauce. All of our dishes were beautifully presented.

Chef Zabriskie stopped by our table and pointed out that everything at Lela's is made from scratch, including the bread we enjoyed so much, the stocks and sauces, and the tarts his wife makes.

For dessert our companions had the mango sorbet with berries and whipped cream. My wife and I had the mango tart. We were all very pleased. I had a hefty-sized latte to finish off the evening.

Lela's is open for lunch, serving soups, salads, hot paninis and hand-rolled, stone-baked pizzas. In the evening the menu changes to include appetizers and entrees.

— Richard Moeschl

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